The Other Serial Killer of Victorian England

Jack the Ripper is a name nearly everyone knows. The brutal murders of five (perhaps more) females are ascribed to the Ripper, and the identity of the killer is one of history’s biggest secrets.

Interestingly, another serial killer was at work during Victorian England, one more prolific and brutal than Ripper. Also a murderer of poor women, and also never caught. I stumbled across this case while researching murders in and around the Thames for the last book in my Regency trilogy, THE LADY HELLION.

The murders are referred to as “The Embankment Murders” or the “Thames Torso Murders.” While the Ripper terrorized London between 1888-1889, the Thames Torso murders spanned 1887-1889, and may have started as early as 1872 or 1873. What separates these cases from Ripper is that the bodies were all dismembered, with the various body parts then wrapped in paper and scattered about Whitehall, Whitechapel, and in the Thames. Ripper, however, concentrated his actions to only Whitechapel and the bodies, while mutilated, were not dismembered in the same fashion as the Torso murders.

The Illustrated Police News, October 1888

The Illustrated Police News, October 1888

I won’t distress the Duchesses by getting into too much detail about the crimes. But it is worth noting that a few of the body locations were telling: one victim’s torso was found by construction workers at the site of New Scotland Yard. Another time, one body part was thrown over the wall of Sir Percy Shelley’s estate in Chelsea. Shelley was the son of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Were the two killers one and the same? Dr. Thomas Bond worked as the police surgeon to Metropolitan Police’s A Division and oversaw both the Ripper killings and the Torso murders. He is considered by many as the first profiler, though neither of these high-profile murderers were ever caught. Though there was a resemblance between the killings, he believed different men were responsible, with the embankment murderer being “the more scientific of the two.”

Olean Democrat, September 12, 1889

Olean Democrat, September 12, 1889

For some time it was doubtful whether all these horrors were the work of one or two persons, but this last murder convinces the medical men that there are two entirely distinct sets of murders and two different men responsible for them. It is believed that in the present instance the body was purposely brought to the Whitechapel district to throw the police off the scent by inducing the belief that the body was that of another victim of Jack the Ripper. In this the perpetrator, however, went to trouble that is entirely superfluous for the police are as much in the fog about the one class of murders as the other.

If you’re interested in the history of police procedure and forensics, these cases and the time period in which they fall are fascinating. It’s not reading for the faint of heart, however, so you may want to have your smelling salts at the ready.

Sources/Further Reading:

Joanna Shupe has always loved history, ever since she saw her first Schoolhouse Rock cartoon. She has three books coming out in 2015 with Kensington, starting with THE COURTESAN DUCHESS in April.


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37 Comments on “The Other Serial Killer of Victorian England
  1. Fascinating post Joanna! It is interesting to speculate whether Jack the Ripper might even have been a less talented copycat killer, given the torso murderer worked a bit earlier.

    I can’t wait to read your book that deals with this subject matter!

    • Or were the two the work of the same man, but he mixed it up for some reason? If only we had DNA or a CSI team back then. Where was William Petersen?! It’s a shame we’ll never know.

  2. Very interesting. This is the first I’ve heard about the second serial killer. Not sure my heart can take reading more into it, though. Clearly, I’m the squeamish duchess.

    • It’s okay to be squeamish. The doctor, Bond, who worked on both cases ended up killing himself at the turn of the century. I can’t even imagine that guy’s nightmares.

  3. How very gruesome!! While I’m a little too weak-stomached to dig deeply into such things, this killer seems intelligent and interesting. I wonder why he and the Ripper both suddenly stopped. (I have a secret hope that one of their intended victims fought back and “done them in!”)

    • I’ve always wondered that, too! And both killings did stop around the same time, from what I can see (Torso continuing a few years later). Ripper has always fascinated me, and now I’ve got even more to ponder when it comes to murders in Victorian England.

      I like to hope one of the victims fought back as well!

  4. Hi Joanna! Very interesting. I ‘d love to know more about the Torso Killer. That was a fascinating time period wasn’t it? Can’t wait to read your book.

    • It is a fascinating time period, especially with the explosion of the press coverage and the beginnings of police criminal procedure.

      If you are looking for a great fictional read, I can’t recommend THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr enough. One of my top ten favorite reads of all time.

  5. Fascinating stuff, Joanna! I had no idea, and given my love of romantic suspense, it’s very cool that Dr. Thomas Bond is thought to be “the first profiler.” Who knew!? Thanks for the great post!

  6. Interesting and gruesome! This makes me look forward even more to THE LADY HELLION. I wonder if these crimes took place in this day and age with current technology if these men would have been caught? I also like the theory that they died at the hands of one of their victims.

  7. This guy sounds terrifying.

    And poor Dr. Bond. What a heartbreaking story.

    I think this kind of stuff, the creepier, dirtier side of history, is so interesting (even if it totally horrifies me).

    Great post, Joanna!

    • The more you read about what he did to the bodies (which I avoided here but you should know include torture–which the Ripper didn’t do) the creepier it gets. It is definitely horrifying…but I can’t NOT read about it. Glad you liked it!

  8. I can’t help but wonder whether the Ripper and the Torso killer were very smart or whether investigators at the time were inept…or perhaps the police were just hampered by lack of advanced investigation methods.

    • It’s clearly a little bit of all three. In their defense, the criminology was so rudimentary. And they weren’t helped by all the press coverage and the supposed letters penned by the Ripper (by the hundreds) that turned up everywhere. It all was too much, too fast for the methods of the time. They believe, because of the way the bodies were disposed, that the Torso killer owned a carriage. And we all know what that means….

  9. Wasn’t aware of that. Interesting. Wonder why Jack the Ripper’s crimes eclipsed these, especially when you consider where some of the “evidence” was found.

    • The Ripper story became a press juggernaut. The press were obsessed with the crimes, which now included photographs of the crime scenes. The Ripper also wrote (supposedly) letters to the press, bragging of the crime and giving “clues.” It also occurred in a much shorter time period, with the five killings all happening in 1888. People were whipped up into a frenzy.

      But it’s fascinating how this set of murders has just become a historical footnote, mostly forgotten. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. I’ve done extensive research on the Ripper and this time period for my own WIP. I got stalled at Mary Kelly’s murder and have researching instead of writing. I haven’t read about the torso murder victims being tortured, but I don’t think any of the heads were ever found. It reminds me of the Black Dahlia.

    • Hi Debbie,

      True that none of the heads were ever found. Identification…or a more sinister reason?

      In the first link I provided “The Torso Killings: A Ghoulish Grandstander”, the author discusses how a chemise was found with the Whitehall victim. It had been split down the front and down the arms, as if the victim had been spread out and tied to something. Bruising on her back indicated she had struggled. I have not verified this in any other source (due to time constraints on my end) so it may not be true.

      Black Dahlia is another fascinating case as well.

  11. Isn’t it fun where research takes us? Start on one thing, and end up with something we never expected. This sounds like a fascinating, scary story, Joanna, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  12. How interesting to know that Jack the Ripper was not the only gruesome serial murderer that was never caught in. LOL. The descriptions had me shiver a bit, but the subject matter is quite interesting nonetheless.

    I’m very much looking forward to your historical romance series!

  13. Fascinating post, your grace. I particularly love how the article says the police are “in the fog”. How funny! I think it was 2 different killers, too. Everything I’ve read about murderers (and reading about true crime is one of my hobbies) indicates that they have “signatures”. The difference in the way the bodies were treated is very telling. Interesting that they knew this even back then.

  14. Well, that’s a book that will be going on my books-to-buy list! I read with interest your research of the 2 murderers. Never knew anything about the Torso Murderer and after reading about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that a BBC TV program called Ripper Street is based a little on both of these murderers. If you’ve never seen the tv program, I highly recommend it. It stars Matthew MacFadyen as CI Frederick Abberline. Set in London during this time period, it deals with early crime solving techniques, forensics as well as the importance of autopsies and drawings or photos of the crime scene.

    • Hi, Karen! I loved, loved, LOVED Ripper Street. Thanks for reminding me of it. I hope it comes back, though I don’t think the ratings were very good. But you’re right–there’s definitely threads of all these murders in that show.

  15. Fascinating, Joanna. One of the gruesome things I read about the Ripper killings was how bystanders would walk thru the crime scene, messing it up. One of the last Ripper victims was the first time police cordoned off the crime scene and kept it pristine until it was photographed. With problems like this, it’s no wonder the police couldn’t catch either of these killers.

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